drs. Down! is part musical, part drama, part medical case study and the brainchild of Dutch TV presenter and chat show host Ivo Niehe, making his debut as a playwright.
He boldly tackles some of the complex, dramatic, delicate and serious issues associated with Down Syndrome: judgements, prejudices and how it can shape and define lives, told through the true story of Pablo Pineda-Ferrer, who overcame the odds to gain a university degree in psychology.
Luc Peumans of visual design practice Painting with Light was asked to join the creative team and produce scenography plus lighting and video designs that captured the spirit of the performance and were also practical and tourable for the production, which launched at the DeLaMar Theatre in Amsterdam and is now touring through the Netherlands until January 2018.
A minimalist set was proposed, as key chunks of the narrative and dialogue – including the dreams and aspirations of main character Lucas - are explained and expressed via pre-recorded video content. It was important to have a clean and clear stage.
Luc drew on many avenues of inspiration, including his ground-breaking work on Ben X in 2012 for which he was also set and lighting designer. Touching on a similar theme, that show was about a boy with autism who escaped bullying via a fantasy computer game world.
In the case of drs. Down!, the starting point for Luc was talking extensively with Ivo and technical producer Frank van der Weij from Senf Theatre Partners in Amsterdam. Using their general vision, he produced the basic building blocks for the staging.
It was a process that also involved the two main actors, Nando Liebregts as Lucas and Rutger Messerschmidt as his best friend Tom, who both have Down Syndrome.
Three 5.7 mm upstage video screens were proposed, one measuring 6 x 3 metres in the centre, flanked by two of 3 x 2 metres left and right, positioned to give everyone in the audience a good view of the material being played out.
The DeLaMar Theatre is a compact space and the high-impact video content – all produced by Ivo Niehe himself – adds physical depth and a huge amount of detail to the story. It is programmed onto and run from a Christie Pandora’s Box media server specified and supplied by Painting with Light.
Leading Benelux rental company, Phlippo Showlights is delivering video screens and all lighting equipment.
The lighting rig is designed to be hung on a standard theatre fly bar system, and the main touring / production moving lights are 25 x URC Zoom 210 LED wash fixtures, Phlippo’s proprietary brand, and 19 x Martin MAC Viper Performances.
These production lights are augmented at each venue with around 28 x Profiles on the FOH Bridge and another 12 rigged closer to the stage on the portal bridge or side bars.
The lighting is stark and symbolic. It combines elements of classic drama like lighting faces and figures realistically with more contemporary considerations like contrasting and balancing the qualities, temperatures and textures of light that work best alongside the different video treatments.
A number of square cubes are used as multi-purpose set props making up a variety of objects to denote locations and scenarios.
Luc relied on the shuttering capabilities of the Vipers to ‘fit’ light precisely to these objects at different times, a concept that permeates the whole show and works elegantly as a theatrical vehicle. It also allowed him to divide the stage into different zones and working areas.
It’s a no-frills straightforward approach to support the acting and visuals that demanded a lot of thought and some complex plotting and programming.
The script kept evolving until late-on, so Luc had to think on his feet and adapt the lighting and set concepts as the action changed and developed, almost like an exercise in live editing which “Really crystallized the moment I arrived on site at the theatre for the technical period,” he says.
Some of the storyboard even stayed fluid until the very last moments before opening night, which was an exciting and invigorating way to work. Luc enjoyed the “great dialogue” between all on the creative team and he really liked the story. “A massive amount of time went into the pre-production phases, so getting into the venue and finessing the final details was extremely rewarding.”
Lighting was programmed by Jeroen Opsteyn for Painting with Light on a grandMA2 light and then transferred to an MA OnPC Command Wing for the tour, and Painting with Light’s Katleen Selleslagh programmed all the video which is being operated by Pommeline Claesen.